How To Build The Perfect Monarch Butterfly Garden

monarch on pink flowers

Daniel Potter freely admits he’s not an expert on monarchs. But as a professor of Entomology at the University of Kentucky, he and his grad students sure love to run experiments. Recently, they completed a 2-year study on the likes and dislikes of the popular orange and black butterfly. Now for the first time ever, there’s a roadmap for building the perfect monarch garden.


If you’re reading this post, you’re probably already a monarch fan. The butterflies’ annual migration from Mexico to Canada is one of the most spectacular events worldwide. All told, the tiny insects fly upwards of 2000 miles roundtrip each spring, stopping four times along the way to breed and lay their eggs. They are the only butterfly species to make such a long, two-way migration.

monarch migration

The past 25 years, however, have seen a sharp decline in monarch populations. Part of this is due to loss of habitat at the butterflies’ overwintering site in Mexico. Activities such as logging, agriculture and urbanization have all taken their toll on the central highland forests that play host to the insects six months out of every year.

But by far the most significant factor driving the decline is the dwindling supply of a plant called milkweed. The native wildflower is the only plant that monarch caterpillars will feed on. And without it, the butterflies cannot complete their life cycle, sustain their migration and ultimately, perpetuate their species.

monarch feeding on milkweed


According to the North American Monarch Conservation Plan, we need 1.8 billion milkweed stems to replace those that have been lost to agriculture and urbanization. And these contributions need to come from all land sectors in order to sustain the annual migration. This includes farms, roadsides, schools, zoos, rights of way and yes, suburban and urban gardens located along the butterflies’ migratory corridor.

Luckily, an initiative called the Monarch Waystation Program is starting to make a crucial difference. Established in 2005, it engages citizens in conservation by providing instruction and materials on how to create habitats for monarchs. The guidelines are simple – Plant two or more milkweed species for the caterpillars, some nectar sources for the adults and you become part of a national registry. To date, over 6000 Monarch Waystations in 46 states have become part of the effort. 


And as it turns out, the Waystation Program Registry provided the perfect jumping off point for Potter’s research into monarch butterfly gardens. A quick Google Earth search revealed hundreds of habitats dotted along the butterflies’ northward route. Furthermore, they represented every kind of landscape.

As Potter put it, ‘Some were non-structured, others ‘wild’, and still others were surrounded by hardscape or located in open rural areas.’ Below are some aerial shots of a few of them. (Photo courtesy Dr. Daniel Potter.)

What Potter and his team wondered was this – with all of this diversity, could there be certain habitats that appealed to monarchs more than others? The group decided to survey 22 citizen-planted Waystations in an effort to find out. Their research ended up producing some interesting results. 


Like most species, monarchs use visual cues to zero in on what they’re looking for. And in the butterflies’ case, these ‘search images’ are made up exclusively of milkweed. But as the Registry revealed, not all waystations were the same. Did monarchs favor some monarch butterfly gardens over others?

Monarchs from ‘search images’ for milkweed

To find out, the researchers counted larvae and caterpillars for a year in their target Waystations to see if the type of habitat made any measurable difference.

monarch caterpillar on milkweed leaf

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed leaf

And they discovered that yes, the butterflies had a strong preference. A structured garden, with milkweed set off by mulch, attracted three to five times more monarchs.

The takeaway? If you want more monarchs, make it easy for them to find the milkweed to lay their eggs on. Plant it apart from other plants. Even better, surround it with a mulch circle. But make sure to provide other nectar producing plants nearby for the returning adult butterflies to feed on.


Interestingly, the researchers found that gardens with unimpeded north-south access recruited more monarchs. This makes sense since it coincides with the butterflies’ migratory route.

monarch migration map

Monarchs prefer gardens with a north-south access


While all milkweed species are suitable for food, not all are equally favored by monarchs. To find the answer why, the group compared 8 species of milkweed all grown in Kentucky and native to the area. They evaluated them as to their suitability for egg-laying as well as their usability as food for monarch caterpillars. And there was a clear preference.

Where they had a choice, monarchs preferred the taller varieties, Swamp, Common and Showy over the smaller varieties like Butterfly weed

The takeaway? If you want to attract more egg-laying monarchs to your monarch butterfly garden, plant the tall, broadleaf milkweed species like common, swamp or showy milkweed.


But what about all of the new milkweed cultivars, you ask? As it has grown in popularity (mainly due to monarchs), milkweed now has many cultivars boasting unusual colors and sizes.

Asclepias Gay Butterflies Mix/White Flower Farm

Not to worry. Potter and his students discovered that monarchs find these cultivars just as attractive as the straight species. But again, go with the bigger varieties if you want more monarchs.


Finally, there’s the case of tropical milkweed, a non-native plant that has exploded in popularity over the past decade. Both gardeners and monarchs love it. But buyer beware. Tropical milkweed is not ‘bad’, per se, but when planted in warm areas of the U.S. it encourages monarchs to stick around longer and even enables them to winter-breed.

tropical milkweed

Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica

Research shows, however, that monarchs breeding on tropical milkweed throughout the winter (rather than returning to Mexico) have higher levels of protozoan infection compared to monarchs in the normal migratory cycles. It turns out that migration is key to outrunning these pathogens.

The takeaway? Stick to the tried and true native milkweed species in your monarch butterfly garden and help the insects keep to their schedule.

To learn more about Daniel Potter and his research into monarchs and other insects, click here for the Dr. Daniel A. Potter Laboratory.


The Secret To Creating Fabulous Fall Containers

Cool-season flowering plants

In my view, autumn doesn’t have to spell the end of the show in the garden. Fall containers offer countless ways to still enjoy seasonal splashes of color. Moreover, these mini gardens no longer have to be all about flowering kale or mums. With a little ingenuity, you can create autumn planters every bit as beautiful as their lush summer cousins.


Fall container colors take their cue from nature; think deep plums, fiery crimsons, golden yellows and rich burgundies. These rich, warm tones look great in almost any combination, just as they do in their natural environment.

Fall’s warm hues

Interestingly, most fall colors are also found adjacent to each other on the color wheel. But autumn can serve up some surprises as well. Have you ever noticed how red, yellow or orange leaves really stand out against a green backdrop? These colors, which are found opposite each other on the wheel, make for some dynamic contrasts.

Indeed, the color wheel is the perfect jumping-off point for designing a great fall container.


DESIGN IDEA #1:  Use adjacent colors to play with perspective

Colors located next to each other on the color wheel make for rich combinations and help play with perspective. When used in combination, ‘active’ colors such as orange, yellow and red, appear to advance towards the viewer.

Use ‘active’ colors in fall containers to call attention to an area.

Hot-colored zinnias

Cool colors such as violets, blues and greens on the other hand (also found adjacent to each other on the color wheel) do just the opposite. These ‘passive’ colors quiet things down and make plantings appear to recede.

Use ‘passive’ colors in fall containers as a backdrop. When combined with ‘active’ colors, they will add a sense of depth to your composition.

Cool-colored asters

DESIGN IDEA #2:  Use complementary colors to create drama 

Complementary colors are those colors that lie directly opposite each other on the color wheel. When used in combination, they intensify each other. The three traditional sets of complementary colors are red and green, purple and yellow and orange and blue.

Notice how the red leaves in this photo look more vibrant when juxtaposed with the green fern. 

Red and green set up a dynamic contrast

Whereas these yellow and purple pansies make for high drama, especially under fall’s lower solar angle. 

yellow and purple pansies

Purple and yellow are rich and eye-catching

DESIGN IDEA #3: Go monochromatic to create an unbroken space

Of course you can always choose to highlight just one color or use a single species in your fall containers. Design-wise, this creates an unbroken space by allowing the eye to sweep across it. There’s no right answer. It’s entirely up to you.

Single species fall container


When designing my fall containers, I use a technique first introduced by Steve Silk for Fine Gardening Magazine; it’s called Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers. Grouping plants into these three distinct categories helps organize them according to height, impact and the role they will play in the overall look of the container. Here’s how it works:


Thrillers are the “wow” factor plant that goes in the middle of the container (or back of the container if it’s against a wall.) The largest plant by height, this plant is usually architectural and bold and sets the tone for the overall composition. Examples are grasses, tall perennials and upright plants with stiff blades in dramatic colors. Great examples of fall thrillers include:

Purple fountain grass



These are rounded or mounding plants that “fill” the mid sections of the fall container. Their job is to disguise leggy thrillers and add mass to the composition while providing color and/or textural contrast. Think of them as the glue that holds the container together, providing a backdrop for other plantings. Foliage plants and medium-sized flowering plants both make great fillers.

Of course, you can always use asters or mums for fillers, but consider trying some of these more unexpected species below.


Ornamental kale

Autumn Joy Sedum 



Orange viola

To spice things up, you can also add silver. Silver is considered a cool color. It looks best with jewel tones like blue, green, red and purple. A little bit goes a long way, though, so use it only as an accent.

Dusty Miller


Long and rambling, these plants soften the edges of your container while adding cascading drama. Spillers generally continue the theme begun by the thriller, either in color, texture or contrasting form. Interesting fall spillers include:


Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia)

Sweet potato vine

English ivy

REMEMBER: Before making your purchases, first determine if your fall containers will be in sun or shade. Then read the plant tags to make sure your selections are appropriate for that environment.


So once you’ve organized your design, it’s time to create your fall container. Start by filling your pots 3/4 way full with good, organic potting mix. Then, plant your thriller, twisting it into the soil. Continue with your fillers, installing them around the base of the thriller. Add your spillers at the end.

Back fill with the remaining soil to cover roots (remembering to disturb them slightly before planting.) It’s OK to pack the plants in; there won’t be much growth in the fall.

Fall container with stock, pansies, heuchera, nasturtiums and creeping jenny

IMPORTANT:  Fall container plants need food and water. Just because it’s cool, doesn’t mean they can survive on their own. Feeding new plants with a timed-release fertilizer at the beginning of the fall should keep them looking their best until the first frost. They will also need occasional deadheading. Once established, plants should require only minimal care.



Ecotherapy: How Contact With Nature Can Improve Your Well-Being

Yesterday, my team and I completed a large project. As we stood surveying our work, we were overcome by emotion. It had taken us months, working together, to coax seven gardens into full bloom. You could say that the plants had really done a number on us.

No, it hadn’t been easy. But now, a cornucopia of fall colors was our long-awaited reward. We all felt a profound sense of well-being.


There’s a relatively new field in town called ecotherapy. Also known as green therapy, it is increasingly being used to improve people’s mental and physical well-being. Broadly speaking, ecotherapy promotes interaction with nature as a means to fostering healing and growth. 

forest path

Think of it as the health of a human viewed in context with the health of the Earth. We often forget that man depends on the natural environment and its ecosystems for survival. Ecotherapy seeks to realign people with their surroundings while also safeguarding and improving their local environments. 


Indeed, research shows that contact with nature can transform us. Not only does it boost our moods, but evidence shows that it can even help with mild forms of depression. In fact, studies have shown that when people are given plants to care for, it not only strengthens their social connections, but also produces increased levels of happiness.

group of houseplants

Houseplants can boost our sense of connectedness

Countless poets have written about this feeling of connectedness towards each other and plants and the inner joy a person can experience in nature.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote,

‘Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience. Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.”

lake in Glacier National Park

Lake in Glacier National Park

Perhaps it’s the combination of physical activity coupled with being outdoors, but I feel considerably better when I’m immersed in my garden. Almost daily, I enter the yard only to discover something new. Monte Don, gardener and TV presenter wrote in a column for Gardener’s World that “When you plant something, you invest in a beautiful future.” It’s true that sowing a seed or nurturing a plant naturally affirms our faith in a good outcome.

Or as Walt Whitman wrote,

“Keep your face always toward the sunshine and shadows will fall behind you.”

field of sunflowers


My boyfriend wasn’t a gardener before we met. But after almost a decade together, he has developed not only a keen knowledge of plants, but distinct preferences for some species over others. Lately, I’ve even caught him weeding.

Recently he came into the house to report on all the pollinator activity going on in the garden. His eyes lit up as he described the range in size and color of the bees he had observed over the course of the afternoon. I smiled to myself. His eyes had been opened to a whole new world of plants and the workings of tiny living beings.

In my case, it’s the sensation of my hands in the dirt, the sound of the wind in the leaves and the changes in the songs of the birds that thrill me. Or the interesting fact that many butterflies’ wings seem to match the flower they pollinate. You could say I’ve been undergoing ecotherapy for years.

monarch on butterfly weed

W.B. Yeats summed it up beautifully. He wrote,

‘The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.’

There’s so much to observe, right under our very noses. Taking time to note all the goings-on around us helps us step outside of ourselves and take a broader interest in our environment.


Finally, there’s the social aspect of ecotherapy. In my view, you can’t beat the feeling of gardening with others. I’ve learned a lot about my team as we’ve installed countless plants, stepping back to see which ones look right where. Previously shy members have suddenly revealed a great eye for color or for cutting curves. Another shown a talent for designing containers. We’ve discovered so much about each other over the course of the years.

Part of my incredible team

This is certainly how we felt yesterday while contemplating our creation. Suffused with a profound sense of accomplishment, we embraced the beauty in all things. I’d say it was ecotherapy at its finest.

Or, as William Wordsworth put it,

“Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.”

And so it was. 

For more information on ecotherapy and its programs, check out Making sense of ecotherapy.

Flowering Kale: The Coolest Cool-Season Ornamental

The distinctive rosette of ornamental kale

Long before it became a trending food, flowering kale was a garden star, delivering a pop of color to fall’s graying landscape. The plant is not only prized for its striking foliage and rosette but is also one of just a few species that thrives in cold weather. Indeed, flowering kale likes cold temperatures so much that it often stays attractive well into winter. I can’t think of a better choice for fall gardens and containers.


Things can get confusing at the nursery. Even though they belong to the same family, cabbage and kale are actually not the same. Cabbage is a multi-layered vegetable whose leaves come together to form a head.

Cabbage head growing in the garden

Conversely, kale has a cluster of upright, open leaves called a rosette.

The bright pink rosette of flowering kale.

Ornamental kale

That being said, you will generally find varieties with broad, flat leaves labeled as ‘ornamental cabbage’ and those with ruffled, crinkled or curled leaves labeled as ‘ornamental kale’ at the store. 


Selectively bred to produce spectacular leaves and rosettes, flowering kale comes in all shapes and sizes. The outer leaves are typically blue-green in tone while the rosettes start out pale green, then gradually shift to pink, red, purple, or cream depending on variety. The florets expand as temperatures cool, .

The distinctive, blue-green outer leaves of ornamental kale

In recent years, innovations in color and form have made ornamental kale a ‘must-have’ in fall gardens. The new hues work beautifully with chrysanthemums, pot marigolds and pansies. And the variety in sizes makes the plant suited to just about every container.

Magenta-toned flowering kale with ruffled edges.

Flowering kale rosette featuring ruffled edges

Best of all, flowering kale usually reaches its crescendo just after the first frost. And some plants maintain their intensity all the way until spring.

flowering kale covered with snow


Kale is a biennial, which means it has a two-year life cycle. The first year it produces leaves and the second year it produces flowers. Most people grow it for its ornamental qualities, however, and throw it out after the first year.


Ornamental kale and cabbage require very little maintenance and are bothered by few pests. They prefer moist, well-drained soil and benefit from feeding. For the best color, position your plants in full sun.

Since there won’t be much top growth after September, look for plants in one-gallon size pots. Then keep spacing tight (10 to 12 inches) to encourage the rosettes to remain small. Over time, they’ll attain a width of approximately 12 inches.

Small garden with geometric display of yellow and pink flowering kale.


Ready to get started? Here are some of the most popular varieties:


Redbor has narrow, upright deep purple, ruffled leaves. It is the tallest kale grown and can reach a height of 3 feet. Use it by itself in a parterre garden, or try massing it behind annuals like chrysanthemums, pansies and violas in contrasting colors.

Redbor kale

Purple-leaved Redbor kale


Peacock series ornamental kale are large, open and frilly plants that can reach 2 feet across. They feature deeply serrated, feather-like leaves and cream or red-toned centers. Extremely cold hardy, they can survive even the harshest of winters.

Peacock series ornamental kale

Deeply serrated, feather-like leaves distinguish Peacock kale


Pigeon Series (Pigeon Pink and Pigeon Red Pigeon Purple and Pigeon White) ornamental kale most closely resembles cabbage with its tight rosettes of light pink, dark red or creamy white. The round-shaped plants have wavy outer leaves that remain medium to dark green while the flower-like centers change color. I’ll often combine different colors to form geometric patterns.

Pigeon series flowering kale

The tight rosettes of ornamental kale ‘Pigeon Series’


Osaka Pink, Osaka White and Osaka Red are often termed ornamental cabbage due to their smooth, flat leaves and tightly-packed rosettes. The plants produce layers of wavy edged green leaves while the florets gradually change to bright purple, pink or cream.

Osaka series flowering kale

Osaka series ornamental kale has flat green leaves like cabbage


Flowering kale’s wide range of sizes make it equally attractive mixed with other flowers or all on its own in a garden or container. Below is a parterre garden I created using two broad-leaved varieties. 

Parterre garden with geometric arrangement of white and purple flowering kale.

Parterre with two different varieties of ornamental kale/

The tall, frilly purple and green varieties and the broadleaf Osaka make a contrasting statement in large containers. In this planter box, the trailing ends of bright green lysimachia soften the mix.

The Impatient Gardener/Pinterest

In this small container, I’ve combined ornamental ‘cabbage’ with violas and Swedish ivy. The greenish-purple kale complements the colors of the dusty red pot.

Fall container with pansies, Swedish ivy and flowering kale.

Fall container with ornamental kale/herebydesign

In this formal urn, I played up the drama using tall grasses as a centerpiece. Then I added different varieties of red and green flowering kale, purple violas and mahogany-toned potato vine to create a warm-toned composition. 

Fall container with purple fountain grass, mahogany sweet potato vine and frilly green flowering kale.

Fall container with grasses, flowering kale and potato vine/herebydesign

Since ornamental kale retains its color well into winter, it also pairs beautifully with evergreen branches, pinecones and catkins to form stunning holiday arrangements.

Photo Credit/Canadian Gardening Magazine

In this fall garden, the deep purple Redbor pairs beautifully with salmon chrysanthemums and straw-colored grasses. The maiden grasses’s creamy plumes add a delicate touch.

Photo Credit/The Hoosier Gardener

Finally, when combining flowering kales with other plants, think about varying the foliage. Here, purple fountain grass and lime green potato vine provide color. And the frilly purple variety lends contrast. 

Photo Credit/Three Dogs In A Garden

Ready to get started? Check out your local nursery for the newest ornamental kale varieties. And don’t be afraid to combine them with other cool-season companions like evergreen branches, dried flower heads, catkins and berries. These fillers will add interest to your containers and keep the show going well into fall.


The Seed Vault That May One Day Save The World


If our planet ever goes to ruin, it’s good to know there’s a place squirreling away the world’s seeds. Located deep inside a mountain just north of the Arctic Circle, it’s known as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Here in an icy chamber, duplicates of close to a million seeds are stored in the largest secure seed storage facility of its kind.


In a world of increasing instability, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault offers the ultimate life insurance policy. Its mission is simple. Designed to safeguard the world’s crops from large-scale natural or man-made disasters, it’s a backup for the global food supply.

We have the Norwegian government and Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust to thank for the idea. In the early 2000s, they recognized that the world’s gene banks were inherently vulnerable. Given that most of the world’s population depended on agriculture for survival, it seemed prudent to preserve seeds. They hit on Svalbard as the answer.


Situated north of Europe midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. One of the world’s northernmost inhabited places, the area boasts rugged mountains, fjords and frozen tundra providing refuge to polar bears, reindeer and the Arctic fox.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the islands served as an international whaling base. But in the early 1900s, they turned mainly to mining coal.  


Polar bears are the iconic symbol of Spitsbergen

Of the four main islands, the largest one is Spitsbergen, which accounts for more than half of the area. Most of the archipelago’s small population lives here in Longyearbyen, a small coal-mining town.

The colorful houses of Spitsbergen’s largest settlement, Longyearbyen 

And just a little over a decade ago, the residents welcomed the Svalbard Global Seed Vault as their new neighbor.

Svalbard was chosen for several reasons. Not only was its remote location ideal, but its Arctic climate and year round frozen ground made it perfect for underground cold storage. Construction of the facility began in June 2006 in an abandoned coal mine deep inside Spitsbergen’s Plateau Mountain. Surrounded by thick rock and permafrost, the completed vault had the capacity to store 4.5 million different crop varieties. 

‘It is the best insulated freezer in the world,’ said Cary Fowler.


Credit: Matthias Heyde


Like many out-of-the-way places, the only visible part of the 10,764 square foot facility is its entrance. Formed out of dark grey concrete, the minimalist lobby juts horizontally out of the mountain. Inside, a massive tube of corrugated steel pipe leads down into the permafrost to three separate but identical chambers.


Credit: Matthias Heyde

According to the Crop Trust, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault currently houses more than 980,000 samples. Originating from almost every country in the world, they include tens of thousands of essential crops such as beans, wheat and rice as well as many unique food varieties. To ensure their survival, each species is stored in boxes behind heavy locked doors in custom, four-ply aluminum packets. 


Credit: Matthias Heyde


So how does it work? It helps to think of the Svalbard Seed Vault in terms of a bank. For example, the vault is owned by the country it’s located in (Norway) and the depositors (global gene banks) own the contents of the boxes. However, seeds are accepted only a few days a year.

Moreover, the seeds are not ‘originals’, but copies of seeds belonging to the depositing gene banks. Anyone who wants access to the seeds, such as plant researchers, farmers or other groups, must request seed samples through the donor gene banks. No one can access the site directly.


Credit: The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture i Nigeria (IITA)

In fact, the state-of-the-art and fully automated seed bank has no permanent staff on site. Instead, the vault is monitored remotely.  Even so, Spitsbergen residents check in on it regularly.


Despite the fact that the seed vault is not open to the public, a piece of art nevertheless embellishes the roof of its lobby. Created by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne, it is called ‘Perpetual Repercussion.’ Composed of stainless steel triangles, mirrors and prisms, the unusual piece reflects the Arctic light back out into space in an ever-changing composition.


Credit: Mari Tefre/Svalbard Globale frøhvelv


A feasibility study, undertaken prior to construction, determined that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault could preserve most major crops’ seeds for centuries. And some important grains could survive even longer, possibly for thousands of years.



In 2015, the civil war in Syria prompted the first ever withdrawal from the Svalbard Seed Vault. Researchers took 38,000 seeds out of the vault to replace crops that had been diminished in the conflict. Read about it and view coverage here at 

Construction of the $9 million facility was funded by the Norwegian government. The facility is now managed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food on behalf of the kingdom of Norway in coordination with the Nordic Gene Resource Center and the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Recently, Norway announced they will spend close to $13 million dollars to upgrade the 10-year-old facility. 

To learn more about the Global Seed Vault and take a virtual tour of the facility visit the Crop Diversity Trust.


Lespedeza: The Best Fall-Flowering Shrub You’ve Never Heard Of

lespedeza thunbergii

Lespedeza thunbergii

Lespedeza. Judging by the sound of it, you’d think it was an island off the coast of Italy. And the plant that bears its name certainly looks Mediterranean. Yet, I had never heard of this magnificent, fall-blooming shrub until a client of mine showed me a pair in her garden. Here’s why I’ve been a fan ever since.


It turns out that while I may have been uninformed, the genus lespedeza has quite a reputation. A member of the pea family, it comprises over 40 flowering plant species. These include shrubs and trailing vines, some of which are grown as ornamental plants and others for forage or to prevent erosion. But some species exhibit some downright deviant behavior.

Take for example Lespedeza striata, commonly known as Japanese clover. A ground-hugging annual, it forms dinner-plate size patches of dark green leaves with wiry stems. In late summer it produces a mass of tiny pink flowers. The downside is it also delights in choking out turf.

lespedeza striata

Lespedeza striata, commonly known as Japanese clover

Then there’s Lespedeza cuneata, an extremely aggressive warm-season perennial. Also known as Chinese bush clover, it was brought to the United States from Asia in the late 1800s to prevent erosion. However, it rapidly began invading open spaces, out-competing native vegetation. Now the upright, gray-green shrub with cream flowers is classified as an invasive weed in the Midwest and eastern United States.

lespedeza cuneata


But, there is a member of the family who is considered the star of the genus. Relatively unknown to the home garden, it is the species Lespedeza thunbergii (also known as bush clover.) Recipient of the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) Award of Garden Merit, it boasts beautiful blue-green foliage, cascading panicles of rosy-pink flowers and a dramatic fountain-like appearance. 

Moreover, unlike other family members, bush clover sticks to its place. Slowly developing over the summer into a roughly 6-foot mound, this beautiful shrub spends August and September laden with thousands of tiny pink flowers. It’s a burst of color just when you least expect it, and at a time when most other perennials are losing their luster.


Designing with Lespedeza thunbergii offers many opportunities. Given its large size, the shrub is a natural for the back of the border (or used as a specimen.) Although it will tolerate some shade, it flowers best in full sun, where is combines beautifully with other fall-blooming perennials like caryopteris, Russian sage, asters and chrysanthemums.

At my client’s home, we’ve gone for a spring-like approach, pairing her shrubs with ‘Little Lime’ hydrangeas, apricot shrub roses, Icy Pink vinca and the upright swords of bearded iris. Anthony Waterer spirea, Longwood Blue caryopteris and white Japanese anemones provide subtle background color.

september perennial border in virginia

To date, the only other place I’ve found Lespedeza thunbergii is at Maryland’s Brookside Gardens, where last fall, I spied it displayed in one of their formal gardens. Here, their staff paired it with Autumn Joy sedum, giant hyssop, maiden grass, pink anemones and purple top vervain to form a stunning combination.

brookside gardens

Brookside Garden’s fall display 


Bush clover flowers on new wood, so you can prune it anytime without shaving off next season’s blooms. Most people cut stems to the ground in late winter. It’s astonishing to watch the shrub bounce back over the summer months into a large, bluish-green sphere as big as most men.

Deer resistant and virtually pest and disease-free, bush clover grows in zones 4-8. The roots are winter hardy to USDA zone 6, but expect the top growth to die back during the winter. (For more about the USDA Plant Hardiness Map and how to use it, click here.)


Lespedeza owes its name to Vicente Manuel de Céspedes who served as governor of the Spanish province of East Florida from 1784-1790. Céspedes gave botanist André Michaux permission to explore East Florida in search of new species.

Michaux ended up discovering the flowering species, which he named in honor of the governor. Unfortunately, when he published his book in 1802, the name de Céspedes was misspelled as de lespedez. The current botanical name lespedeza allegedly derives from this mistake.


The Late-Summer Delights Of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’

sedum autumn joy in the garden

Are you on the hunt for a dependable plant for your late-summer garden? Look no further than sedum ‘Autumn Joy.’ Come August, its lovely clusters of tiny flowers are just starting to adopt a rosy-pink hue. And best of all, the blooms keep going for weeks, gradually turning a dusty red that’s the perfect compliment to fall. Continue reading

Up In Smoke: Why Lodgepole Pines Love A Good Forest Fire

Lodgepole pine forest

Lodgepole pine forest

If you’re a homeowner, there’s nothing good about forest fires. But it may come as a surprise to learn that for some species, they’re essential. And one of them is the flagpole-shaped tree known as the Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine. Continue reading

Chesapeake Bay Wildflowers: July’s Top 10 Bloomers


‘There are always flowers for those who want to see them’ – Henri Matisse

For most of my life, I’ve been more attracted to ornamentals than to wildflowers. Even though I’ve noticed many beautiful species in the landscape, I’ve never really taken the time to observe them. You might say, I’ve been wildflower blind. Continue reading

In The Zone: The USDA Plant Hardiness Map Explained

The 1967 Arnold Map/Image courtesy of Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University.

Most of us know not to plant watermelons in the mountains or aspen trees at the beach. But, when it comes to the myriad plants available to gardeners and landscapers at the nursery, things can get murky. That’s when a handy tool called the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map can make all the difference. Not only can it tell you what plants will survive where, but it can also ensure a year’s worth of success in the garden. Continue reading